nous, gumption, horse sense

I probably unfairly privilege Ben Zimmer when he comes into my blog-suggestions inbox (which is to say, I'm about to cover a suggestion of his only 13 months after he suggested it). As a lexicographer, he knows what counts as an answerable question (so many that I'm sent are not), and, as a language columnist, he has a good sense of which topics might have a bit of (orig. AmE) mileage in them.

The suggestion he sent me last July was BrE use of nous.  And I thought to myself: "Is that British? I just think of it as extremely intellectual." The problem, it seems, is that I don't read the sports pages.

The first definition in the OED is the one that I knew:

1. Ancient Greek Philos. Mind, intellect; intelligence; intuitive apprehension.
As in:
1884    Encycl. Brit. XVII. 336/1   What Plotinus understands by the nous is the highest sphere accessible to the human mind‥, and, along with that, pure thought itself.
But the meaning that Ben was referring to was:
2. colloq. (chiefly Brit.). Common sense, practical intelligence, ‘gumption’.

And he pointed out:
It's surprisingly common in UK sports reporting (search Google News for "have|has|had the nous").
Reading the sports pages would require a level of dedication to this blog that I demonstrably don't have. But I am aware that I miss linguistic riches by not paying attention to them (in any country). Searching have/has/had the nous, I got six hits (half British, the others from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand), four of which were from the sports pages. Here are a couple (bold added):
[About a senior police figure who's resigned in the phone-hacking scandal] “I don’t think any of us would question his integrity. It’s his judgement that has been called into question. But he’s had the nous to realise that if he stays the speculation goes on.” 
[About a cricket player(BrE) cricketer/(AmE) cricket player--T20 is an abbreviated name for an abbreviated form of the game] In many ways du Toit exemplifies the way T20 has gone – he’s hardly a household name in his own household and has played more T20 matches than first class or List A, but he has the nous to get the job done.
The 'common-sense' history of nous is hardly recent. I liked the first OED example for it [though I don't know what Demo-brain'd means here. The only OED entry for Demo is a colloquial name for the US Democratic Party]:
1706    E. Baynard Cold Baths II. 306   A Demo-brain'd Doctor of more Note than Nous.

According to OED, the usual pronunciation of nous in BrE rhymes with mouse, but the AmE pronunciation sounds like noose.

There's another AmE/BrE difference to be found in the OED entry for nous: its definition as 'gumption'. To my AmE mind, gumption (orig. Scots) is an odd synonym for 'common sense'.  We can see the reason for this reflected in US/UK dictionary treatments of the word. The American Heritage Dictionary has:
1. Boldness of enterprise; initiative or aggressiveness.
Guts; spunk.*
Common sense.
Whereas Collins English Dictionary has:
1. Brit common sense or resourcefulness
2. initiative or courage
As the AHD entry reflects, the 'common sense' sense is not the primary sense in American English. A better AmE synonym for gumption is (orig. AmE) get-up-and-go.

What do we have in AmE for 'common sense'?  Well there's horse sense ('strong common sense'), which is originally AmE, but now found in BrE. A more specific kind of common sense is (orig. AmE) street smarts 'the ability to live by one's wits in an urban environment' (OED). But when I think of Americans talking about common sense, I think of the construction X has[n't] [got] the sense God gave Y (or:  X doesn't have the sense God gave Y).  Looking for "the sense God gave" in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I found:
He's got the sense God gave a fruitfly.
The sense God gave a goose, you might say-except He didn't give it to all the geese
That man ain't got the sense God gave a goat.  
you ain't got the sense God gave a mule.
You don't have the sense God gave crawfish.
Anybody who'd choose to live in Texas hasn't got the sense God gave a squirrel
they'd missed the sign and hadn't had the sense God gave a turnip to stop and look at a map
you don't have the sense God gave you.
You city noodles haven't the sense God gave hedgehogs
If I'd had the sense God gave a horny toad I'd have turned and run

As you can probably tell from the examples, this construction (partially filled-in idiom) has a definite 'rural' feel to it--it's colloquial and very (orig. AmE) folksy and stereotypically very Southern.

But if I've missed some good nouns for 'common sense', I'm sure you'll fill us in in the comments!

* I've no doubt that some readers will find this definition humorous, as spunk is BrE slang for 'semen'. But the primary meaning in AmE (also found in BrE, and originating from a Scots/northern England dialect for 'spark') is 'Spirit, mettle; courage, pluck' (OED).


  1. I hate to say it, but "demo-brain'd" would appear to be a simple miskeying for "demi-brain'd". Even Homer nods, as they say. The work in question (Psychrolousia: or, the history of cold-bathing) is viewable in facsimile on and it's quite clear. I haven't got my printed OED here so can't check when that citation entered the dictionary, but they should consider firing a keyboarder!

    And if you'll allow another pedantic aside, surely "cricket player (AmE) cricketer (BrE)"?

  2. I (AmE) immediately went to "hasn't got the sense s/he was born with." Sort of like the "God gave" examples, but interestingly structured to imply that someone originally had some common sense and then lost it! Not that it's used to imply any such thing, of course; the person about whom this is said probably has never shown any sense at all (in the eyes of the speaker, at least).

  3. I thought that nous more or less sounds like nose in BrE. I base this on the memory of some fictional character mishearing one word for the other. A search quickly digs up some examples of halfhearted wordplay that seem to back this up.

  4. Nous does indeed rhyme with mouse in the UK. Dictionaries seem to think that's a possible pronunciation in the US too.

  5. The pronunciation is an index of when the word was taken — initially by people who knew Classical Greek — into one or the other English-speaking community.

    Most Classical Greek vocabulary came through Latin — via actual words used by the Romans, or by hypothetical forms they would have. I think I'm right in saying that Greek ου spelling normally became Latin u — as in Oedipus for Οἰδίπους. So (if I really am right) the spelling alone indicates a 'modern' — i.e. post-Renaissance — take-up of the word.

    Until the late nineteenth century, nobody paid much attention to how the Ancient Greeks might have pronounced words, so rhyming nous with house was the obvious choice.

    Gradually the insight spread among scholars, and eventually to schools and pupils that the Classical pronunciation of νοῦς was more like English noose.

    The British pronunciation is a sign that the word 'escaped' from the academically minded into general use before 'reformed pronunciation' took hold. The American pronunciation is a sign that it stayed in the discourse domain of the highly educated until after reformed pronunciation had superceded the old English way of doing it.

  6. I forgot to mention the word doula: a (usually) female non-medical birthing attendant. This was taken very recently from Classical Greek δούλη, non-Attic δούλα — ironically, 'a female slave'. Because the adoption was so recent, there was no question of any pronunciation other than dooluh.

  7. When Univ. of Wisconsin professor Harry Brighouse used "nous" on Crooked Timber a few months ago (comparing US and UK protests), he was branded in some quarters as pretentious.

  8. @Harry Campbell: You are right--will do a little editing in the post!

  9. Whoa. I had no idea what the origin of "nous" was. I have a Northern English husband (Oxford educated but not a sports fan) who uses it all the time and says he didn't pick it up at university. I thought it was another bit of dialect.

    He pronounces it to rhyme with "mouse" and seems to give it a mixed meaning of guts and common sense. Hm.

  10. Re: "get-up-and-go". It's a real word? And it's American? I'm in the US and the only time I've heard it used is in the song by the Rutles:
    (I'm referring to the "but he had a lot of get up and go" line). I always thought that made no sense and wasn't meant to.

  11. I think 'nous' in a sporting context suggests something stronger than common sense, something somewhere between common sense, canniness and know-how. The fact that you often hear it attached to the name of the sport in question - 'footballing nous' or 'cricketing nous' or the like - suggests it has an element to do with specific expertise. When you read something like this or this talking about someone's 'nous with the ball' it is not, for me, talking about common sense but a sort of technical subtlety.

  12. Gradually the insight spread among scholars, and eventually to schools and pupils that the Classical pronunciation of νοῦς was more like English noose.

    I think that the classical Attic pronounciation would have been more like the vowel of "close". In the Koine period, it changed to "noose" and this remains the case in modern Greek.

    The same would be the case for "doula".

  13. My (BrE) family would say that someone "hasn't got the brains (s)he was born with".

  14. I've known the folksy noun "get-up-and-go" since childhood, but it's not quite part of my dialect. I would only use it in a somewhat joking way.

    I once heard someone say (as if advertising some medicine that is supposed to pep you up)
    "Has your get-up-and-go got up and gone?"

  15. I have also heard sports commentators refer to a hard-to-hit pitch in baseball as having a lot of giddy-up.

  16. Then there's the Weavers' song about age: "My get-up-and-go has got up and went." Rodger C

  17. I would guess that the reason 'nous' is common in sports reporting is that it's a way to describe intelligent play without running against the basic prejudice that sport — and particularly football — isn't an 'intelligent' activity. God forbid a journalist should have to resort to describing Wayne Rooney or Paul Gascoigne as 'intelligent'.

  18. vp

    I think that the classical Attic pronounciation would have been more like the vowel of "close".

    Interesting, but not exactly relevant — though I have no doubt that you're right.

    In the 'reformed pronunciation' that I was taught ου was u:.

    In future years, if Greek Departments teach something like o: then new borrowings from Classical Greek may well be pronounced with əʊ.

  19. Byron, "Don Juan", canto 2, stanza 130:

    But taking him into her father's house
    Was not exactly the best way to save,
    But like conveying to the cat the mouse,
    Or people in a trance into their grave;
    Because the good old man had so much "νους,"
    Unlike the honest Arab thieves so brave,
    He would have hospitably cured the stranger,
    And sold him instantly when out of danger.

  20. There's an exchange in Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman in which the eponymous anti-hero Roger Micheldene uses the word 'nous' to an American who does not understand, which causes Micheldene to complain about the decline of Greek in the US. (My copy is in store or I'd quote it.)

  21. I've only heard gumption in Ireland in sense "pluck" -- somewhere between "initiative" and "guts" -- typically as something someone doesn't have.

  22. Yeah... over here in the US we've got the same secondary meaning for 'spunk'. It's considered crass/impolite, so depending on your age or mindset, that meaning could conceivable be the one someone thinks of first, but it's not guaranteed to be. Same in UK?

  23. ...and the Irish term for "common sense" is cop on; also a verb to cop [oneself] on

  24. Whoops, I take it back - the Northerner spouse means "common sense" by it. But he thought it was a Northernism (grew up outside Manchester) - is very amused to find it's Greek.

  25. @ Stephen
    But then, in the poem Don Juan rhymes with ruin, so that may not be a good source to cite for standard pronunciations. (Unless that is the standard BrE pronunciation, in which case I apologize for lack of knowledge.)

  26. What about moxie to mean roughly the same as gumption or spunk?

  27. I didn't think "horse sense" was American, particularly. I would assume "He hasn't got much horse-and-common", with "sense" understood, was particularly British! "Nous" is slightly more than common sense, to me it also implies initiative.

    "Brains" is usually intelligence, but if someone doesn't display much common sense, you wonder whether or not they have any brains....

  28. @PW Yes, "don jew-un" is (or was then at least) the normal UK pronunciation of Don Juan. Byron would hardly have "rhymed" ruin with "don hwan"! ("In" doesn't rhyme with "un" for most British speakers, though, so it's not quite "ruin".)

    On the point about the pronunciation of "nous", it's interesting that the Longman Pronunciation Dict, despite its editor's classical training, shows only the pronunciation that rhymes with "house" with no earlier form or US variant.

  29. Alright, I'll own up to being the rube who read the intro of this post and thought, "British? It's not even English!"
    And then: "I guess I can see how the casual insertion of French words in conversation might make one appear intellectual...oh, it's Greek."
    Anyway, thanks for an enlightening post ;)

  30. Harry Campbell

    the Longman Pronunciation Dict, despite its editor's classical training, shows only the pronunciation that rhymes with "house" with no earlier form

    There is no earlier form in English. Even assuming that the word was around before the Great Vowel Shift, it would still have rhymed with house. The pronunciation that rhymes with moose is considerably later.

  31. interesting - as a southern English speaker, I'd actually distinguish between the words in the following way:
    nous - sense because of having a good 'feel' for the subject matter;
    gumption - bravado and courage in exerting sense;
    horse sense - innate intuition of it being sense.

    I'm not claiming that I'm right, but that I'd use them for different 'flavours' of common sense!

  32. As a AM/E speaker, I have never heard nous used in English, ever. Gumption, horse sense, street smarts, moxie, yes. Get-up and go is more about verve and energy, not common sense.

    But with more influx of Spanish speakers in the US, cojones is making inroads to indicate nerve and courage.

  33. Now, _that's_ an interesting difference that had never occurred to me before this minute - between the American "cojones" and the English "bollocks"! Two words for the same body part, but with very different slang meanings..... sorry, that is probably veering off-topic.

  34. As an American speaker (of 60 years)I have never seen/read/heard "nous" until I was introduced to it via "The Economist", and then by an England print version of a book. I cannot believe this word has any American usage other than the most pretentious.
    Common sense, with the meaning of "common" as most broad, shared by all; and not as base or minimal.
    I know spunk as the slang for semen in writing but never, or nearly so in speech.

  35. Re: "get-up-and-go" - I saw that phrase only this weekend in a travel article about New Zealand trying to dispel various unfair stereotypes, one of which is that all the get-up-and-go Kiwis have already got up and gone.

    Re: "moxie". As a Brit I only recall it from Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, where top fighter test pilots have "the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness" to fly dangerous experimental machinery right on the edge of disaster. To my mind, despite the "courage" meaning of gumption, if the pilots had any gumption they wouldn't be in those planes in the first place!

    re: "cojones" and bollocks. In Br/E you can have balls, which is courage, or you can talk balls, which is rubbish. This resulted in a political joke at the expense of Ed Balls, now Shadow Chancellor but then aide to the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, that some policy idea or other "was not Brown's, but Balls".

  36. I (BrE 20s) have never heard the expression 'horse sense' in any context. I do hear nous as in house as in good sense and initiative often and without pretention in the South. I would never have even realised it wasn't considered English. Gumption, as has been noted, is more akin to courage, cajones and balls. As for spunk, well in my experience it almost always means the sordid man milk of iniquity. If anyone uses it in the sense mentioned here, it's with a snigger/nudge/wink.

    P.S This is the first time I've accessed this site on my schmancy overrated new Android and it looks lovely!

  37. I also hear spunk as a verb a lot, but that probably says too much about the kind if company I keep.

  38. @Solo. I assume that the verb form of spunk you mean is: to spend, waste, 'blow' money on unnecessary items, as in 'He spunked all his winnings on clothes'. This is certainly a BrE meaning, but does AmE also have the same meaning?

  39. I think the first time I heard 'spunk' as a verb used on telly and being a bit shocked was when one of the contestants on the BBC's Apprentice used it on his CV for the interview round of the show. I'm paraphrasing but it was something like "spunking money down the drain"? He lost by the way!

  40. Oh yeah, and "street-smarts" is more 'streetwise' or 'savvy' to my BrE ears.

  41. Reminds me of that after-school PSA from the 70s: "When my get-up-and-go has got up and went, I hanker for a hunk o' cheese."

  42. AndyJ- I could pretend that's what I meant. But see my above comment for the general colloquial application of the term amongst my peers.

    Even I'm too delicate to give an example in context- I'd be loathe to lower the tone of the comments further than I have already.

  43. I was taught the Greek alphabet and a few basics, in the early 1960s, and was told the pronunciation we were using was the 'old' one - corresponding to pronouncing the Latin word 'amavi' as 'amayvi' - which by then was more or less obsolete.

    Under it, 'nous' would rhyme with 'house', not 'mouse' as under more recent pronunciations.

  44. sorry, I meant to write 'moose' and thought I had done.

  45. vp

    [I don't suppose anybody else is much interested]

    I've just got hold of Edinburgh Libraries' copy of WS Allen's Vox Graeca — the book that did more than anything to standardise the pronunciation of Greek in British schools. For ου — as for other sound-spelling choices — Allen does two things:

    1. He discusses the evidence and comes to a conclusion — in this case concluding that the sound change you place with Koine was much much earlier. These discussions, of course, constitute the bulk of the book and are addressed to fellow scholars and to teachers who are interested in a rationale and the nature of the evidence.

    2. Practical teaching recommendations. These are addressed to teachers with less interest in the arguments (or with less time to spare). They take the form of short paragraphs of underlined text. In this instance:

    The clear recommendation, therefore, is to pronounce ου in all cases as a long close back vowel [ū], i.e. as accented ου in modern Greek, or as English pool or French rouge. [all underlined]

    You may have read modern evidence that negates Allen's conclusion in [1]. Still, it's his recommendation in [2] that has led to all(?) American users of the word and a small minority of British users to make nous a homophone with noose.

  46. As a Greek-American, I've only ever heard nous in Greek. I had no idea it was a cromulent British English word.

    I would use (and have used) any of the alternatives listed instead -- pluck, grit, moxie, guts, courage, horse sense, smarts, etc.

    But nous? In Greek it just means your mind or your thoughts. Nothing extra.

  47. Anonymous

    I had no idea it was a cromulent British English word.

    Cromulent is too recent for any reliable lexicographic reference, so I've had to rely on online explanation. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to denote a made up word devised as an individual hoax or a group conspiracy and passed off as a word with genuine currency. This is clearly not true of nous.

    1. It's not concocted, but a genuine word in another language: Greek Ancient and Modern.

    2. It has a long history as a written word in English texts.

    3. It's not a tricksy word like triskaidekaphobia (superstitious fear of the number 13) invented as a joke and written down, then recognised from time to time by unconnected readers.

    The third point is crucial. The word nous was clearly used by a substantial speech community. How do we know? Because of the way it's spoken. The pronunciation rhyming with house points unequivocally to a time when

    • a very large proportion (possibly a majority) of educated British males were familiar with Classical Greek and New Testament Greek

    • a significant minority of this number would find nothing strange in reading philosophical writings with Greek νους slipped into an English sentence

    [The same could be said for significant number of educated women, despite the restrictions imposed on them]

    Now you could argue that the supposed hoaxer or conspirator deliberately chose an obsolete style of pronouncing Classical Greek to fool us that nous was an old spoken word. This is about as plausible as God creating bogus fossils to test our faith.

    I first noticed the English word nous about fifty years ago. Ironically, I already knew the Greek word νους with its very different pronunciation.

  48. To summarise David, "nous" isn't a "nonce" word!

  49. @David Crosbie: Correct me if I'm wrong, but ["cromulent"] seems to denote a made up word devised as an individual hoax or a group conspiracy and passed off as a word with genuine currency.

    You are wrong. Let Wiktionary correct you.

    A "cromulent" word is an authentic, current word. The original Simpsons joke was that "cromulent" was not cromulent, not (as you surmise) that "cromulent" was cromulent. The subsequent meta-joke is that "cromulent" has become (marginally) cromulent. Its realworld meaning is the same as its original Simpsons meaning.

  50. mollymooly

    I was relying principally on these entries in the Urban Dictionary

    1. Cromulent 1440 up, 120 down
    Used in an ironical sense to mean legitimate, and therefore, in reality, spurious and not at all legitimate. Assumes common knowledge of the inherent Simpsons reference.


    3. cromulent 224 up, 95 down
    (Adj.) Used to describe a dubious or made up word, term, or phrase that is entirely plausible because it makes logical sense within existing language conventions.

    Ironically, the word comulent itself is not cromulent. (See incromulent)

    [Entry [2] is not very useful.]

    Google quotes what seems to be an earlier version of Wikipedia, now amended:

    Lisa the Iconoclast - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    The episode features two neologisms: embiggen and cromulent which were intended to sound like real words but play on the fact that they are completely ...

    [I take it that the operative word was but.]

    The current version of Wikipediais far less negative:

    The episode features two neologisms: embiggen and cromulent. The show runners asked the writers if they could come up with two words which sounded like real words, and these were what they came up with. ... Schoolteacher Edna Krabappel comments that she never heard the word embiggens until she moved to Springfield. Miss Hoover, another teacher, replies, "I don’t know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word." Later in the episode, while talking about Homer’s audition for the role of town crier, Principal Skinner states, "He's embiggened that role with his cromulent performance."... Cromulent is an adjective that was coined by David S. Cohen.

    The question arises: Was the meaning attached by some Simpsons characters — and by some real people since — intended by Cohen as a serviceable new word-meaning or as an anti-word, a plausible definition for noise masquerading as a word — as claimed in the Urban Dictionary? From which arises the more pertinent question: Which of these two did Anonymous think it was?

  51. I think we'd have to agree that relying principally on the Urban Dictionary is not exactly a good idea. I wonder what made it seem more reliable than Wikipedia and Wiktionary, which head the list of google-hits I get.

    It's characteristic that the afterthought at sense 2 ("Ironically, the word comulent itself is not cromulent") flatly contradicts the sense of the the definition. Cromulent doesn't denote a made-up word, it is a made-up word which in fact denotes "a word with genuine currency".

    None of has much to do with nous or gumption, I'd say.

  52. Harry

    The Wikipedia quote appeared to support Urban Dictionary. I'd barely heard of Wiktionary. In fact, I was reluctant to rely on any online source, but there doesn't seem to be any alternative.

    The problem is that the meaning of the word is not the point. What matters is the ironic manner in which it is deployed. Was Anonymous being ironic? Or was he/she using a code word and assuming that everybody knows the code?

    If I'd written of 'a pukka word', some American readers might not have recognised the word pukka but they wouldn't have been misled by dictionaries or layers of irony.

    Nous is a pukka British word; that's the relevance.

  53. There's really no need to search so assiduously for "layers of irony" or "code words"! A simple Google search takes you straight to Wiktionary, as does the link at the first occurrence of "cromulent" in the very Wikipedia entry you quote.

    The web is full of perfectly clear definitions and uses of the word in context; it's just unfortunate that you chose to rely on the most unreliable one there is. I can't begin to see how Wikipedia's "[t]he meaning of cromulent is inferred only from its usage, which indicates that it is a positive attribute" could be taken to support Urban Dict's sense of "spurious and not at all legitimate", "[u]sed to describe a dubious or made up word, term, or phrase".

    I apologise to Lynne for prolonging the irrelevant discussion of "cromulent", but I do wonder if it demonstrates an important general point: the outdated and dangerous assumption that only printed books are "pukka". We've all heard those people who grandly declare "oh you can't trust Wikipedia" without knowing the first thing about it. There's a world of difference between Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, for example. If you restricted yourself to the printed version of OED, you would be turning your back on the last quarter-century of scholarship. Nothing is perfect, we should always be on our guard — as I noted at the top of this thread, even OED is not immune to a crass mistyping — but if we assume all online sources are equally unreliable, and fail to glance around for confirmation, we will certainly end up being "misled by dictionaries".

  54. Harry

    I do wonder if it demonstrates an important general point: the outdated and dangerous assumption that only printed books are "pukka"

    No, Harry, it demonstrates rather a different important point: that some of us lack the knowledge and skill to assess online sources of information.

    I came unstuck because I knew nothing of the relative merits of the dictionaries. With printed books I would have had more of a clue.

  55. Well, David, you can take it however you like, but the point I was trying to make is that whether the words we're reading are on paper or a webpage, it's the same age-old skills of scepticism and discrimination that we need, whatever our technological aptitude. Any dictionary entry that misspells the headword (remember "the word comulent [sic] itself is not cromulent"? True, but not what they meant!) surely loses some points for reliability, and when it also starts the sentence with the minefield-word "Ironically..." we may think it wise to glance around for a second opinion!

    It's perhaps not just a matter of "knowledge and skill" but also a kind of instinct for what makes sense: what you might call nous, in fact.

  56. (Of course I wasn't meaning to imply that you lacked nous, David, just bring us back to the main topic! I'll shut up now.)

  57. I'm the Greek American who used cromulent. I apologize for the confusion. I should have used legitimate.

    I had seen others using it, and as a big Simpsons fan I assumed, incorrectly, that most people knew what it meant.

    That'll learn me.

  58. I'm an American who follows English football. I've only heard the word nous used by English sport presenters, but they usually pronounce the word "noo," just like the French pronoun "nous" (we) ...

  59. Really? I've never heard anyone say "noo" in a sporting or everyday context.

  60. @lake:

    Are you sure? I was listening to a BBC sports podcast just yesterday and heard "nous" rhyme with "mouse" as usual.

  61. Reverting to Byron for a moment - Don Juan is a humorous poem and part of the humour comes from his use of deliberately bad or contrived rhymes. I agree that he probably pronounced the name "Jewan".

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  62. 'Gumption' to me (southern BrEng) is absolutely 'common sense' rather than 'courage', though with an element of 'initiative': if you demonstrate a lack of gumption you tend to be more passively dozy/inert than recklessly active in your silliness - you'll have failed to do something that would be expected of someone with normal mental acuity in the circumstances.
    Lack of gumption is a more insulting charge than lack of nous - I agree with some others' assessment that nous has an element of 'canniness' or skill beyond lowest-common-denominator common sense. There used to be some kind of household cleaning product in the UK called Gumption with the slogan 'Use a little Gumption'.

    For the lack of common sense, there's also 'gormless' (does that have transatlantic currency?) - but I don't think there's a positive-valency option there.

  63. There's a UK radio ad running at present for a car called an iGo or something equally ridiculous, and it's described as a car for "People with gumption, with get up and go." Implying they are similar but distinct concepts.

  64. There's a UK radio ad running at present for a car called an iGo or something equally ridiculous, and it's described as a car for "People with gumption, with get up and go." Implying they are similar but distinct concepts.

  65. I would just say common sense, or sense. Like "She had enough sense to know better."

    or maybe even wherewithal? "she had the wherewithal to find where she was going"

  66. @pj As an American, I have never heard of gormless. Can you have it without the -less?

    Also, while it's possible 'nous' is understood in the rarified heights of American academia, I don't think the common American would know of it. Spellchecker doesn't even believe it's a word.

    And while I understand it's different for the Brits, I don't associate 'gumption' with common sense at all. More bravery and spunk, with maybe some grit thrown in.

  67. I've heard an expression "business nous" (and yes, rhyme with "mouse")

  68. Massachusetts age 25-

    I was not heretofore aware of nous, in either sense.

    In the sporting sense, American announcers frequently use awareness, alertness and intelligence to refer to quick and accurate reaction to rapidly emerging game states, and bold, daring or aggressive to refer to high risk/high reward gambits.

    When athletes do so readily and effortlessly they are said to have a sixth sense.

  69. Stavros Karageorgis06 November, 2014 04:13

    So, if there is evidence that English-speaking people have used the word "nous" while pronouncing it, effectively, as if it were spelled "nouse", does that mean that the correct pronunciation is thus?

    No, the truly correct pronunciation of "nous" is "noose" with a somewhat shortened "oo". "ου" was under no circumstances, never ever, pronounced "aoo" by Greek speakers, ancient, Attic, Koine or any other version of Greek.

    Whoever pronounced it to rhyme with "house" or "mouse", pronounced it incorrectly, no matter for how long and how classically educated or otherwise refined and distinguished they were.

  70. Starves

    There isn such thing as a 'correct' pronunciation, only agreed pronunciations.

    The people who invented the English word were interested in only one sense in which the Greek νους was used. It became an English word with a much narrower meaning than the Greek original. English nous is a personal characteristic —something you possess or don't possess. It's much like practical common sense, except that it involves the intelligence — whereas common sense may be instinctive.

    The English word was coined to be used by a community of educated people who could read Classical Greek and New Testament Greek. Many could effortlessly understand what they read; some had learned Greek at school and forgotten almost everything.

    The pronunciation was based on spelling and unique to English speakers — because of the strange history of English sounds and spelling. Scarcely anybody knew how Greek as currently pronounced in Greece. Nobody at all knew how it was pronounced in Classical or Hellenistic times.

    The only possible pronunciation was to rhyme with house. Anything else was inconceivable until scholars began to deduce what Classical Greek pronunciation must have been. But it took half a century or more for this scholarship to have any effect on the way Greek was taught in schools.

    However, during that time the word nous fell somewhat out of use. So for almost a century most people came across nous as an unfamiliar word in writing. Of these, some had learned Greek in the 'authentic' pronunciation, or at least knew a bit about it. That's how the pronunciation rhyming with goose was born.

    I'm a bit unusual in that I learned something amounting to 'authentic' pronunciation at school, but I first encountered nous in speech. So for me
    νους is Greek word that a rhymes with goose
    nous is an English word that rhymes with mouse

    To complicate matters, nous is a rare example of a loan word spelled with ou for ου. There must be other examples, but I can't think of one.) The general rule is that English takes its spelling from the Latin version of a Greek word. Often this means inventing the spelling that Latin would have used.

    So ου is written u, which in English has two pronunciations
    • short U as in Oedipus EE-di-pus
    • long U as the first vowel in Uranus YOO-RAY-nus

  71. Stavros Karageorgis


    Sorry Stavros! My spellchecker has a mind of its own.

  72. I (northern BrE) also thought it was local dialect... rather surprised to find it isn't! And I would also use it to mean "practical common sense" - like gumption or also gorm. That is, I would describe someone as gormless, but also use gorm as the noun referring to what they were lacking.


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AmE = American English
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